Reading my feelings

Comfort reads and my books of 2020

What a funny year for reading. One victim of the CRUSHING EXISTENTIAL ANXIETY that permeated 2020 was my attention span.

For a while, my ability to concentrate on reading was completely absent - given quiet time and a book in front of me, my brain would just start spinning into pandemics and elections and, well, everything else. Thanks, brain.

Eventually I browbeat my brain into a bit of focus, but, even then, my reading was limited:

  • I could read ‘work-related’ books. My brain understood that work is work and paying attention is important.

  • I could prod myself into reading. Things like my reading challenges helped give my reading ‘purpose’ - nudges to allow me to read for pleasure. Even that had limits, however. You’ll note that I didn’t read many long Westerns.

  • I could read ‘comfort reads’. And thank god for them.

At least, superficially, my ‘output’ was the same. But although I read the same number of books as last year (and most years, really), I read far fewer pages. According to GoodReads, I actually read 15,000 fewer pages than in 2019 (and the lowest number of pages on ‘record’ - that is, since I started using GR in 2011). Basically, I read shorter books.

The content of my books was also very different than a ‘typical’ year. A totally different mixture of genres for example. Also, I read very few new books - and even fewer ‘very old’ books. I normally pride myself on both, but in 2020, I didn’t tackle either.

In conclusion, it was a funny old year, and my reading reflects it.

I’ll confess that I’m curious to see if my reading behaviour changes in the long-term. I’ll also confess this was an experiment I could’ve lived without.

Let’s try and get something good out of this situation. Let’s EXTRAPOLATE!

What is a comfort read anyway?

Comfort reads were essential to my 2020 reading - and to my overall mental health. But what exactly constitutes ‘comfort’ in a book?

Based on my robust sample size of one person, there are three elements to it: content, format, and familiarity.

First, content.

I read slightly less SF/F every year, but in 2020, that fell off a cliff. Less than 10% of my books were, in any way, science fiction or fantasy: the lowest of any genre. That’s a pretty substantial change from something that was the majority of my reading less than 10 years ago, and a healthy plurality since then. I didn’t participate in’s end-of-year Reviewers’ Choice picks for the first time, because, well, I simply didn’t read enough SF/F to have a meaningful opinion. Fun fact: I read more of Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series than all other SF/F books combined.

[This is a really unsettling realisation. How much of my SF/F reading was obligation, not recreation - propped up by projects like The Best of British Fantasy, or various reviewing gigs? How much willing, '‘purely recreational’ SF/F have I been reading? And why, in a year of seeking comfort, did I not find it between the covers of my ‘core’ genre? I still think of my identity as that of an SF/F reader, but am I? Really?! The trauma!]

What did I read instead?

Westerns and mysteries, obviously, I had ‘reading challenges’. But even outside of those challenges, I still sought out those genres. But it was romance, that filled my reading days - even without any form of prompt. Romance was my default genre of 2020, with about one-third of my reading a romance title of some sort or another. (I’m excluding the Kate Daniels books, incidentally.)

Why did I turn to romance? What made Regency bonking my default genre in this tumultuous year? Romance is, of course, a varied and multifaceted genre. The sort I gravitated to: formulaic, funny, and full of HEA (Happily Ever After in romance lingo). Regencies are, as mentioned, my preference. There’s absolutely no variety in plot, but they’re heavy on banter. Occasionally there are long digressions into dress-selection, or dance etiquette. Extrapolating further - what makes a comfort genre? Unchallenging, but engaging. You escape everything else, and there’s no effort required.

Second, format.

One of the unexpected results of 2020 was that I read a lot of Gold Medals.

I’ve written about these vintage paperbacks in the past: they’re fascinating. The line began in 1950, as a sort of American version of Penguin. ‘Colonel’ Roscoe Fawcett focused on publishing books that were cheap, entertaining, attractive and portable.

I’ve been collecting these books for years: I really adore them. They’re beautiful, they’re fascinating, and they launched the careers of many great authors. But this was the year I really read the hell out of them. And not the ‘many great authors’: I was just pulling them randomly off the pile. About a fifth of my reading in 2020 was a Gold Medal paperback.

Again, why?

Product design matters.

Fawcett wanted books for the new class of American commuters: books that could compete with magazines. They were pocket-sized, and - for lack of a better word - ‘pick-up-able’ - they had gorgeous covers, lurid titles, and enticing shout-lines. All that, and they generally topped out between 150-200 pages. All these features combine to make a book that’s as accessible as possible: a book that’s not only immediately engaging, but un-intimidating. A book without barriers.

This facet of comfort has nothing to do with the content of the book. It is purely about the way it is put together and packaged. A mass market paperback is, in many ways, even more ‘accessible’ than an ebook: you know exactly how big (or not big) it is. There’s neither heft nor weight to it, and there’s a casual disposability to its design (and price point) that puts no pressure on the reader. It promises distraction, but nothing more.

Third, familiarity.

Another way in to ‘comfort reading’: it is not about the content, nor the object itself. It is about my relationship with it. A quarter of my reading this year was re-reading. A particular type of re-read at that: I wasn’t revisiting Moby Dick. (Spoiler: I will never revisit Moby Dick. Moby Dick is terrible. Come at me, whalebros.)

Instead, I spent a lot of time in 2020 staring at increasingly large piles of new books, only to wander over to my well-thumbed John D MacDonald collection instead. JDM and Georgette Heyer both fared very well this year, two authors that, at this point, I can pretty much recite word for word.

To me, this is about the experience. If my struggle with reading was my inability to tune out reality, these books represent well-worn paths to other worlds. They’re the easiest doors I can step through.

Without falling down a phenomenological rabbit hole, a reread brings with it the comfort of experiencing a familiar experience. Re-reading a book is not only revisiting the content, but also revisiting the initial experience of encountering that content. When I’m re-reading a Travis McGee mystery, I’m reminding myself of the book, and also of reading the book in 2010, and of the very first time I read them, on vacation in Arizona. It doesn’t get much more comfortable than that.

At the start of lockdown, way back in March, the push was ‘time to read Proust!’ and other big books; other enlightening, self-improving strategies. Although I’m delighted to see some of those dusty classics shift a few sales, I think, in hindsight, that didn’t do anyone any favours. In a year of mandatory, external challenges, there’s an argument for avoiding optional, self-inflicted ones instead. We should give more credit to the ‘little books’ instead - encourage pleasure and distraction, and celebrate the comfort they bring us.

With that in mind, the inevitable reading list.

Ten comforting books I read in 2020:

  • The Long Ride, by James McKimmey (1961). A bank robber, a man who robbed the bank robber, and an FBI agent. All stuffed in station wagon for a cross-country trip with four innocents. A ride-share thriller! It is a very fun premise, and should be a Netflix series.

  • Escape Velocity, by Susan Wolfe (2016). A con artist joins the legal team of a dot-com, and uses her powers for good. This should also be a Netflix series.

  • Triggernometry, by Stark Holborn (2020). Gunfighters, but with math. Yes. Stark’s new book has just been announced, and I’m ready for it. I would also accept this as a Netflix series.

  • Cotillion, by Georgette Heyer (1953). One of my favourite Heyers, which is saying a lot. The grumpy (and wealthy) patriarch gathers his three nephews to him. Whomever marries his ward gets to inherit. She has her own plans. Hijinks ensue. It is a lovely, good-hearted book with a slow-burning twist to it that makes for a particularly joyous ending. While I’m on about Netflix series: the fact that there are no Heyer adaptations is a crime against humanity.

  • Airport, by Arthur Hailey (1968). The Godfather of disaster fiction. Hailey describes the chaos of an airport in excruciating detail, then proceeds to run it through the wringer. The characters are ridiculous, there’s all sorts of amusing pontificating, and BOY, 1968 feels like a long time ago. But also: extremely good fun.

  • Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson (1938). And boy, she does! Very funny, very silly, and also a delightful film.

  • The Lie and the Lady, by Kate Noble (2015). The second book in a trilogy that’s about nobles and whatnots swapping places and wooing people and wagers and Learning Things About Yourself and stuff. The first book suffered because the hero, a Duke pretending to be his secretary, was still kind of a knob. The second picks up with the secretary-who-was-briefly-a-Duke, who is now trying to re-woo the noblewoman who fell for him during the charade. Complicated? It isn’t, really. And it mostly comes down to hot, nice people circling one another like sexy sharks.

  • Pale Grey for Guilt, by John D MacDonald (1968). Travis avenges a friend. It is by the numbers: some seedy developers, ponderous self-examination, railing about the state of the world, a widow in need of comforting, some fisticuffs.

  • Satan Takes the Helm, by Calvin Clements (1952). He’s the first mate that wants to be a captain. She’s the captain’s wife, and wants to be a rich widow. Nautical noir hijinks ensue. A lost treasure.

  • A Map to the Sun, by Sloane Leong (2020). Captivating graphic novel about a high school women’s basketball team. Occasionally heart-breaking, but always terrific.

Have a very happy holiday, and a joyous end to 2020.

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